Read time – 5 minutes

We sit down with Exodus leader Johnny Villalobos, winner of our Tour Leader of the Year Award 2017, for a quick Q&A between wildlife spotting in Costa Rica

Interview with Johnny Villalobos

How do you approach leading tours?

I like to prepare for a trip to Costa Rica by first of all reading a bit about the clients’ backgrounds and age range. That helps me think about what we can find along the way. I recap every single destination we have in our itinerary, in order to deliver the best information for the customer.

What makes a great tour guide?

Most important is understanding what customer preferences might be. It’s not just taking a group and leading them around the places, but trying to accommodate everyone within the possibilities available, and trying to maximise their experience. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do: to make sure everyone has the best experience possible on the trip.

Johnny VillalobosJohnny Villalobos

Are there any particular customer experiences that have been special or memorable?

I think every one really because trying to have the best memories of a trip is one of my goals – so I make sure everyone has this. It’s very nice to have everyone giving me fantastic feedback about a place. Having that good aftertaste and people saying that they want to come back here… I think that’s the best reward you can get.

What are your favourite locations in Costa Rica to take passengers to?

Tortuguero is one of the most beautiful places you can find in Costa Rica, to give you that rainforest experience. Then you get to the highlands and experience the mountain area, where you find that tropical cloud forest, and fantastic birds like the quetzal. Or the cloud forest of Monteverde, or just simply being on the beach… it’s hard to choose!

Costa Rica Monteverde Cloud ForestExploring the cloud forest

What kind of reactions do you get from customers visiting Costa Rica for the first time?

They say it exceeds their expectation, that’s the main reaction. For me, I try and think about the first time I was there, that first impression I had of places, and try to deliver that impression to them. The amount of biodiversity is just brilliant, which helps a lot because everywhere you look there’s something moving. Just being there in the middle of the rainforest, howler monkeys waking you up at 4.30 in the morning… you don’t have that every day.

What are the most popular wildlife spots in Costa Rica?

I think the most popular would be the sloths. Everyone likes to see something different that you don’t find somewhere else. With the monkeys, you can find primates somewhere else in the world, but a sloth is always a unique experience. The birds, toucans and macaws, would also be very popular and something that’s accessible to see.

And, of course, the quetzal bird, but that’s not a bird that you’ll see all the time. There’s a 95% chance you’ll see one on your trips, but you’ll have to wake up early!

2017 Leader of the Year: Johnny VillalobosMonkey in Costa Rica

What are the main issues Costa Rica faces around conservation and the environment?

I think we’re in a process right now. I always think in general in Costa Rica, and in particular the tourism areas, there’s a lot to improve on. I think that we have achieved some things, but it’s not enough – there’s always a window to continue working on some of these improvements.

Right now we’re in a process with recycling, especially in tourist areas, when this amount of people come to visit it’s been a challenge for our communities. Some communities are finding success, some communities are having challenges still but I think they’re going in a good direction.

The board of tourism is actually trying to encourage everyone – and in the case of Costa Rica, every hotel, beside the stars, also have leaves. The amount of leaves you have is how committed you are to environmental responsibility. It’s the same with the restaurants and tour companies.

So little by little, we’re trying to have a national commitment. We’re also committed to becoming the first carbon-neutral company in the world, which is a huge challenge, but a fantastic incentive.

2017 Leader of the Year: Johnny VillalobosCosta Rican waterfall

Is there a particular activity in Costa Rica you’d recommend?

The canopy walks, an optional activity. It’s a different experience because you really get to see the canopy of the trees – what we call in Costa Rica the ‘hanging gardens of Central America’. At the top of those trees in the middle of a cloud forest, you see how many plants grow on plants.

When they were doing research and they discovered that area, we realised we knew nothing about the rainforest or cloud forest. It was like discovering a whole new level of biodiversity. Once you go to the top you see the butterflies and hummingbirds, so many things you would never have seen from the bottom. That’s a unique experience.

Also, if you like adventure, the zip lines. You don’t go for birds etc, you just go screaming! So it’s completely different.

Zip lining Costa RicaZiplining in the forest

What does Exodus Travels mean to you?

After 23 years leading groups, about five years ago I found in Exodus a company that has principles that make me feel comfortable. The responsible tourism element is super important because it’s one of my principles in general. Exodus travellers really enjoy nature, as well as other things, but nature tends to be the main focus of the trips.

The Responsible Travel element of working with kids, taking them to places to travel (The Inspiration Project) is a very nice social impact that we have. The greatest satisfaction is to share knowledge and happiness in this giveback to kids from communities we impact in our Exodus experiences.

Johnny Villalobos Inspiration ProjectJohnny with children on the Inspiration Project

And also, the fact that I was able to be able to donate part of my award prize money to a charity is something which is really nice. It’s not just about money.

In general, I think it’s a company worth working for, and I experienced that as a traveller in Italy on my Amalfi Coast trip. We all have the same feeling – we’re committed.

Browse trips to Costa Rica below.